What is your best food memory?

One of my favorites was the turkey and mole my Mother made– comfort food at its best. The intoxicating aroma of the mole as I used a soft tortilla to pick up the tender turkey and the incredible sauce is a memory that remains fresh in my mind.

What is your favorite season for cooking with local ingredients? Most challenging?

It’s difficult to top summer in the Sacramento Valley. The amazing array of fresh ingredients available locally is every chef’s dream. The fresh tomatoes – perfectly ripe and juicy - are wonderful. I love the flavor of a ripe tomato – the simple pleasure of tasting what nature offers without anything else except a little salt. It brings back memories of my Father, who carried a salt shaker into his garden and ate tomatoes right from the vine.

The harvest is an exciting time! Farm-to-Fork was simply a way of life when I grew up. We used what was fresh and preserved the rest. I have always felt the magic that exists in growing food. The hard work in dusty fields, seeds sprinkled with water and blind faith that they will grow. The plants that soak up the suns’ rays to eventually yield a bounty of sustaining food truly reaffirms life itself.

As I’ve immersed myself in the foods of true México, one of the seasons I’ve come to love is fall. Every year in September, we prepare Chiles en Nogada to celebrate Mexican Independence. This dish, which is of great historical significance, is made to represent the three colors of the Mexican flag. According to historians, Chiles en Nogada (which I will be preparing for the Dinner at the Barn) was first made for the emperor Agustin de Iturbide when he visited the city of Puebla in 1821.

Each season has its traditions – and just like the circle of life, the passing of the seasons bring new and exciting possibilities.

How would you define your culinary style?

I want to represent true Mexican cooking – the delicious use of bold flavors, combining fresh foods and dried herbs that have been the staple of different regions in México for hundreds of years. I love the freshness of the foods in México; the creativity with which people use what’s seasonally available to make memorable dishes.

What many people don’t realize is that México is considered one of the ‘cradles’ of human agriculture. Indigenous people in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica developed domesticated plants such as cacao (chocolate), vanilla, avocado, tomato, squash, beans, peppers and maize (corn). They not only harvested fresh produce, they developed ways to dry and preserve what they grew. The earliest dated maize cob dates back to around 4000 BC and was discovered in a cave near Oaxaca.

The beautiful mural of the Goddess Mayahuel in our Coa Room– depicting her as both an ancient and a future figure - epitomizes my culinary style, which combines ancient, indigenous flavors with the tastes of today. I like to think my ancestors would approve.

Where will your next vacation be? (Real or imagined)

I’d love to return to Oaxaca, where some of the best chefs in the world are creating amazing culinary adventures – pairing local fresh foods and Mezcales in such wonderful combinations it has become an art.

Mexico City is another destination for me. It has world renowned chefs who have incorporated their modern-day culinary skills with traditional foods. Chefs such as Enrique Olvera, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita and Eduardo García. I’d love to experience their food and talk with them about their inspiration.

Who or what influenced your culinary style the most?

Certainly my Mother influenced my style more than anyone. The love with which she prepared each dish transcended the ingredients into something far beyond simple food. To her, creating food for her family was deserving of extra care and attention to detail every time she cooked, no matter the meal. I try to incorporate that love and care into everything I do.

My Father was a wonderful cook as well. His Caldo de Miche – a fish stew – was legendary. His imagination in the kitchen was unlimited. He made amazing carnitas, and preserved jams, nopales, salsa, and tomatoes from the garden.

Chef Diana Kennedy has been an inspiration. Born in the United Kingdom, she moved to a piece of land on Michoacán as a young adult, where she was able to grow and incorporate fresh fruit and vegetables in her cooking. She has published nine cookbooks, using methods and ingredients she learned in 50 years of traveling throughout México. Some of the top Mexican chefs still feel she’s the most influential chef in the country at age 93.

Do you have a signature dish?

I really have a signature ‘flavor’ rather than a specific dish. The beautiful Poblano pepper is seen throughout the dishes on my menu– in the Rellenos, Arrachera, Crema de Chile Poblano Soup and our balanced and complex Mole, of which I’m very proud. The Rajas de Chile Poblano that accompany many of our dishes are very representative of the flavors of México.

For our Crema de Chile Poblano Soup we roast the fresh Poblanos and combine them with cilantro, spices, and a bit of Crema to create a soup we feel symbolizes the taste of México. We have guests who come in from out of town just for this soup – they say it’s very addictive!

Who are your culinary idols?

As an entrepreneur, I have followed Chef Danny Meyer for many years – his commitment to exemplary service is beyond compare. I have endeavored to pattern my philosophy of service and management of my team after his approach, which allows employees to shine by giving them the tools they need to do their job well, and helping them problem-solve when needed. I truly believe that every job is equally of value and is worth doing well, and that every member of my team is essential to the health of the restaurant.

Chef Richard Sandoval, who learned the magic of using fresh, authentic ingredients from his Grandmother is another of my culinary idols. He has combined his love of everyday cooking with his restaurant Fathers emphasis on the importance of service to a level few others attain. The owner of 42 restaurants all over the world, Richard Sandoval is best known for his unique concepts which blend true Mexican ingredients with other world cuisines. Just like me, Chef Sandoval is passionate about Tequila. His vast collection of Tequilas is remarkable.

As a Restaurateur, I admire the way in which México City Chef Enrique Olveras has changed the perception that Mexican food is simply ‘street food’ and has elevated it to a complex and amazing experience. He shows unwavering attention to detail in his dishes, using traditional ingredients with a creative and unique approach.

What is your go-to drink when you are out on the town?

Of course I love small-batch Tequilas and Mezcales – to sip or to pair with food! I love to try Mezcales with traditional as well as modern foods. Mezcal is a social drink. Many innovative ideas have begun with Mezcal, launching successful business ventures.

Mezcal has been enjoyed with food for centuries. It’s only recently that it is gaining attention in the United States for its similarities to fine wine – the meticulous growing, distillation and cooking the wild Agave varieties, the influence of the terroir, and even the water used all contribute to the diversity we see in the fine Mezcales which are now being imported.

There are so many small-batch Mezcales and so many possible food combinations, I cannot possibly ever become bored. Like most aficionados, my list of ‘must tries’ is always growing.

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